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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Wednesday (1/14/15) 1:24am - ... wherein Peter plans art for 2015.

I finally posted that look back at artistic efforts in 2014.  Now it's time to look forward to the coming year.  What can I do differently this time to make me happier with how things turn out?

Some Basic Guidelines
I think I've got it boiled down to four simple guidelines.  This is not to say, "Ooh, artistic fulfillment is sooo easy, I just need to follow these revolutionary rules that ONLY I am smart enough to have figured out."  It's more like, I need to keep these guidelines simple for myself, or I'll just get confused and lazy.  They're commonplace principles, but I just need to keep them in view.  So, without further ado:

  1. Try lots of things; quit lots of things.
  2. Experiment more, coast less.
  3. Manage more, create less.
  4. Care about marketing.
Let's consider each of these in turn.

Try lots of things; quit lots of things.
"Well, *duh*," say my half-dozen readers in unison.

Generally, I was at my happiest this year, artistically, when I was trying new things.  Finally properly learning film editing was wonderful.  Putting together my first stand-up set was terrifying, but immensely satisfying.  Even something as simple as expanding my cooking repertoire to include baking made me feel very content.

And there really isn't any pointless learning here -- every artistic discipline supports every other one.  (Okay, maybe not baking.)  The more you do, the more you *can* do.  And who knows when I might uncover some artistic discipline that really connects with me.

All that said, I also need to be more willing to bail on the things that I try.  Sometimes persistence is a virtue -- writing the weekly media updates continues to be rewarding, so it'd be stupid to quit that -- but 2014 had me going down a lot of blind alleys.  I made a couple of stabs at new guitar techniques (fingerpicking and clawhammer) that went absolutely nowhere, and my mindless woodshedding on piano has taught me nearly nothing this year.  I'm very good at sticking with a project just to stick with it; I need to curb that in 2015.

Experiment more; coast less.
Even within my more traditional outlets, there were opportunities for newness.  When I was doing my usual narrative improv, towards the end of the year, I was happiest with the new styles and techniques I had to learn to make those shows work.  And guitar became a lot more rewarding when I found an online guitar course and started learning blues.

So I'm not saying I have to drop the outlets I've always had, but I need to prioritize finding new things *in* those outlets.  Don't quit dance, but maybe explore kizomba instead of blues.  Don't quit improv, but explore directing and crazy Fringe formats instead of putting in yet another Maestro appearance.  Don't quit piano, but keep trying new techniques for learning the instrument.

Whenever I have a choice, I should go with the less complacent option.

Manage more; create less.
I like making stuff.  And often the best way to make stuff is to make it so other people can make stuff themselves.  The art of coordinating other people's efforts -- of giving artists what they need to make something great while I stay on the sidelines and make sure it all creates a cohesive whole -- is very rewarding for me.

I think this held true in 2014.  Tales from the Black Vault has been, for all its tribulations, one of my favorite efforts this year, partly because it was immensely satisfying to make a structure in which other talented people could do lots of good work.  To some extent, it's like playing one of those resource-management computer games -- the actual logistics of it are surprisingly fun.  Likewise, I'm enjoying my lower-key responsibilities temporarily directing Control Issues, a monthly show at the Hideout.

This shouldn't surprise me, really.  My favorite thing about writing a screenplay is all of the blanks it leaves for other artists to fill in.  You write a line, sure, but it's more like you're leaving a space for an actor to explore, so they'll elevate the line with their delivery.  You write a scene description, and you're hoping to leave something evocative that can inspire the set designers and DP.  It's not so much "I made a thing" as "I made a framework that will ensure that once you've all made your things, it will add up to something really cool."

This also should help steer me towards collaboration.  Let's face it: art is pretty much my preferred means of socializing.  If I abandon all forms of collaborative art and go back into slaving-in-the-garret mode, then it's very hard for me to get out and around people, and then eventually I start feeling miserable and going nuts.

And finally, I just like the notion of creating new projects for people to work on.  If I'm fighting with other performers to get cast in a show, there's nothing inherently wrong with that -- I am still finding a way to create stuff and to be useful to the community -- but I can't help feeling like, if I weren't there, a dozen other good improvisors could take my place.  And at that point, I start wondering if I'm really contributing all that much.

If, instead, I'm creating new projects, then that's less zero-sum.  Everybody trying to get cast in existing projects is fighting over a limited array of roles.  Everybody trying to make new projects is working together to make sure that there is more art for everyone to do.  It's like the different between fighting over pieces of a pie, versus baking more pies to ensure more pie for everybody.

Mmm.  Pie.

Care about marketing.
I've got to be honest with myself: I think I'm done with slaving away, year-in and year-out, to create art that nobody ever, ever sees.  This is not to say that I have to be some crazy, desperate famous person.  But I want to feel like I'm connecting with *some* kind of audience, and building *some* kind of community, even if it's just a small one.

So basically, when I take on a project, I should ask myself some questions.  Is this something that anybody is going to want to see?  If it's a script, is it producible?  If it's an essay, is it of interest to anybody besides me?  If it's music, can I perform it competently enough to record it passably?

And in the end, I may just go and do the thing that nobody needs, just to get it out of my system (again, see also the Weekly Media Updates).  This is more about asking the question, and when possible, nudging myself towards work that won't leave me feeling so isolated and useless.

Then on top of that, I need to ask myself, how can I market this?[1]  How can I drive attention towards whatever I wind up making in 2015?  What simple steps can I take to connect these works of art with the audiences that would appreciate them?  I doubt I will be very good at any of this, but I need to at least feel like I'm at least trying to connect with an audience, instead of just putting everything away in a drawer and forgetting about it.  I need to do the basic due diligence that every grown-up artist does.

Basically, I need to admit to myself that I'm not some impossibly pure and virtuous artiste.  In the recap of last year's art, I compared most of my projects to "dropping rocks into a pond": nobody sees it, there are a few ripples, and suddenly it's like you never did anything at all.  I can't spend another year dropping rocks into the pond.  I just can't.

Applying These Principles
That last section was a lot of words -- and definitely far too much for me to keep in my mind all at once.  I need to reduce all that verbiage to simple guidelines that I can actually follow in 2015.

So.  When I weigh taking on a new project, I think I should ask myself these questions:

Is it something I've done before?

If it is, that's not the end of the world -- but sameness is a mark against it.  Ideally, it'll be something completely new to me (à la stand-up).  But even if it's something traditional like improv, I can assess whether I'll be pushing myself or just coasting.  Am I improvising something I haven't done before, or is it more of the same?

What resources will it require?

Specifically, how much time and how much money (fungible quantities, if you're a freelancer) will it take to bring this project to completion?  If it takes a heavy investment, then the project had better be really good.  If it seems a bit pointless, but requires minimal investment, then those factors may cancel each other out.

Will it be fun?

There's nothing wrong with another project where I'm slaving away in my garret doing something painful and difficult.  But all things being equal, I should go for the ones that are pleasant -- partly because life is short, and partly because (to paraphrase Jill Bernard) you don't have fun because you're doing good work -- you do good work because you're having fun.

Will it be social?

I should favor projects that are heavily collaborative.  Honestly, working together on artistic projects is my favorite way to be around other people.  Specifically, I should favor management roles where I'm coordinating other artists.  Again, I'll feel very happy if 2015 can be the year where I explore getting things made rather than making them myself.

Will anyone care?

Again, I don't have to be a slave to popularity.  But I still want to produce art that has *some* kind of an audience.  Or, if I decide to pursue a project that won't, I want to go into it with open eyes -- the last thing I want is to not ask the question, dive into something, and then get disappointed when nobody cares.

The Raw Materials for 2015
The next logical question is, what projects are on the horizon for 2015?  What *can* I do?

I pretty much have to play guitar every day, or I start going nuts.  I should continue with the blues lessons for a while, especially they've just gotten into slide guitar, which I've wanted to learn for literally decades.  But at the same time, I need to keep an eye on that.  If I start getting complacent, bored, or mindless about it, I should at least change gears to another course on the site.

With piano, I need to acknowledge that nothing I did in 2014 worked.  I should drop it from my schedule until I come up with a new approach.  The most logical thing would be to wait until I have a job again, and then write up a lengthy post about what I want to do on piano (short answer: learn to improvise basic blues piano and then build from that beachhead), and then look for an instructor that matches what I'm looking for.

I should also at least consider writing music again.  I tried doing a 'song of the week' project a decade ago, and I tried participating in "SongFight" around then, too.  A combination of factors did that in: recording music on a Windows box was just atrocious at the time[2], and the gulf between my taste and my abilities was just torture.  But who knows -- surely technology is different now, and perhaps I'm different now, too.

And, as an absolute longshot, if I get anywhere with little video projects *and* piano[3], I could explore recording very basic scoring.  That sounds crazy, as I don't have the musical chops for it, the filmmaking chops for it, or any experience whatsoever in the field.  But it's still very intriguing, and this is one of those things where abject failure could be instructive and fun.  It could be pretty good, as pondrocks go.

First off, the Weekly Media Updates, useless pondrocks that they are, should stay.  It's not that much a time investment, they've been fascinating to write, and it's incredibly convenient to have my thoughts on anything I've read or watched filed away online for easy linking.  I think I've learned quite a bit, particularly about television, by this act of thinking about what I see and putting it into words.

Beyond that, things are hazy.

I'm a far better essayist than I am a storyteller, so I need to at least consider putting out more essays.  Specifically, I need to keep my eyes peeled for interesting topics -- if something sticks in my brain, some thought or question that I find myself worrying for days on end, I need to add that to some kind of hopper of essay ideas.  That said, blog-essays tend to be pondrocks.  So I suppose any time I write a lengthy blogpost, I need to consider how to self-promote it to an audience that might be interested.

When it comes to fiction, things are especially hazy.

I guess I need to just accept that, for whatever reason, my natural mode of writing is to write fanfic.  Specifically, it's to write episodes of whatever TV show I'm watching.  I'm not *good* at it, but at this point, it's what my brain naturally does.  Example: I watched the premiere of Black Mirror, and I started mentally writing a Community episode on the same premise.  There was absolutely no reason to do that, but it lodged in the back of my brain and was buzzing away.

So first, I need to accept that.  Second, I need to accept that it's the worst possible creative project for me.  Writing that sort of thing takes me a ton of time.[4]  TV scripts require lots of fiddly puzzle-solving, as you get the acts to hit the right lengths, you get the act breaks to land properly, you alternate storylines smoothly, create appropriate pacing, and all that -- so it's ages and ages spent sudoku-ing out the outline, and then a day or two quickly blatting out the dialog -- the actual writing.  Let's face it: spend laboring in the logic mines is not a lot of fun.

Then, when all is said and done, I have a piece of writing that is just about as worthless as humanly possible.  Obviously, it's unproducible.  It's not of interest to the fanfic community, which largely focuses on prose fiction and sexytimes.[5]  And it's not anything that random strangers would ever want to read, because people tend not to read screenplays, full-stop.  Such specs wouldn't even be of use in Hollywood, where aspiring TV writers are judged more and more on the strengths of pilot specs, not specs of existing shows.[6]

So if I want to write, I should make one of two subtly-different compromises.  Either (1) I can change my process -- i.e., walk away from *this* writing process and focus instead on a format that's actually useful -- or (2) I can change my product -- i.e., keep my writing process largely the same, but *tweak* it in such a way that it produces something of value.

Either way, I think the most useful question here is "what format would not be a pondrock?"  What can I write that would have an audience of, say, dozens?  What can I write that would be fun and not murderously difficult?

The most obvious answer is "audiodramas".  I say it's obvious only because Tales from the Black Vault is clearly laying the logistical groundwork for producing them.  Once we have finished episodes of Tales from the Black Vault, we'll have a blueprint for every step of the process of audiodrama production except for the 'writing' part, and we'll have made a whole slew of educational mistakes.  There is some question of whether I could write anything that people would actually want to hear, when all is said and done.  But it seems reasonable to hope that I could find an audience of dozens, and something of an online community for them.  That's enough to save it from being a pondrock.

Marc has a Night-Vale-esque concept he's been kicking around, so that seems like the most natural thing in the world to work on in 2015.

Video sketches also feel like a good angle.  I've finally progressed to the point where I could shoot a 2½-minute sketch and (key part here) edit it to completion.  (I'm pretty satisfied with my editing on the Tales from the Black Vault kickstarter video, though it's still too long.  And the Free Fringe promo kicked ass.)  Accruing more experience at that would be great in and of itself[7], and video sketches have the advantage of being both short (people are likely to give something 2½ minutes of their attention) and easily accessible (people are likely to click a link and at least watch the first 10 seconds to see if it's for them).

It's possible that I could do something like Sketchwar again -- weekly sketch-writing on a particular topic -- and eventually pick out one that I like to actually produce.  Alternately, I could try getting a live sketch troupe together, though that would be a massive undertaking.

Both of these have the potential of generating projects that are fun, social, and non-pondrock-y.

There are other formats I could try writing in.  Prose fiction would be fairly natural for me, but I don't think my heart would be in it.  I could always write another interactive-fiction game, but those are inevitably the most pondrocky form of writing that is humanly possible.  Another issue with both of these possibilities is that they're solitary projects, and I have enough solitary creative projects on my plate already.  I should keep an eye out for collaborative writing projects, or to the possibility of starting them.

This is definitely where the opportunities are the most plentiful.  But it's also where I've covered the most ground in the last decade or two.  So at this point, the question is "What haven't I done yet?"

I think that question is going to steer me away from playing in traditional mainstages in 2015.  More and more often, I find that genre shows only require a re-polishing and re-deployment of skills that I've already developed -- kind of like the "it's like meets " shorthand, referencing shows I've already done.  And while these productions are fun and social, they typically require massive time investments and leave me going in circles, artistically.  If I'm doing improv just to do improv, or doing improv just to stay in touch with the scene, I should probably do the various pick-up shows like Maestro or The Rubber Room.

I've got to go where the experimentation is.  First and foremost, that'll be Fringe formats -- the Free Fringe is the Hideout show where you do shows that are so out-there, the theater can't in good conscience charge money for them.  But also, there are plans for a "Stargazer" series off experimental mainstages on the Hideout's smaller stage.

And obviously I need to think about directing.  It tops the list of "What haven't I done yet?"  So I can come up with more Fringe formats, and I can keep an eye on my brain to see if any more ambitious show ideas crop up.  Marc and I have been kicking around a site-specific show, similar to The Suitcase, and I absolutely should pursue that.  Meanwhile, I've temporarily taken on directorship of Control Issues, so we'll see how that pans out.

And even when I'm doing "traditional" improv (e.g., appearing in Maestro or something), I need to push myself somehow.  I should probably pick something to work on every month, and just try to exercise that skill in all my pick-up shows.  Anything to keep me from just doing the same thing the same way, over and over again.

This past October, I tried doing stand-up comedy for the first time.  I was okay at it.  My countless 'flight hours' on stage as an actor and improvisor definitely came in handy when performing a stand-up set.  On the other hand, writing was tough.  Or more precisely, writing was time-consuming.  I just had to accept that I would spend lots and lots and lots of time staring at a blank page.  I think I spent half an hour a day, almost every day, for five weeks, and came up with a total of five minutes of material.  I had five good-ish minutes, but there was a lot of frustrated writer's block behind that.

If I can get to the point where coming up with stand-up material is *any* easier, then stand-up could definitely become a regular part of my artistic life.  And this would have the advantage of being social (there's a lovely, supportive stand-up community in Austin) and public (i.e., some small smattering of people would actually see my work) and still relatively new to me.

As always, I need to accept that dancing hasn't been a "learn new things" outlet for me for a long, long time.  It's fun, it's social (though I've had diminishing returns on both those axes, over the years), but it's not a form of art that really matters to me the way that music or storytelling does.  So I basically need to treat dance as a purely social outlet -- a fun way to goof off on a Friday night, but that's about it.

If I plan on studying dance at all, the most obvious option is to explore the city's nascent kizomba scene.  It seems a natural next step from blues, the music is really good, and the scene seems welcoming.

The final step is to process all this into a list of vague plans for the coming year.

The Present
Currently, I'm hip-deep in Tales from the Black Vault.  We have post-production to do, and we have fulfillment for donor rewards to do, and we have distribution to do, and I'm pitching in with all three.  So that's going to be the main thing I'm busy with for the immediate future.

Alongside that, I've been trusted with directing Control Issues while Andreas is waylaid with Escorts commitments, so I'll spend the next month or so exploring that role, and trying to build a decent narration workshop in the process.

The Next Month Or Two
So the next question is, what should I transition into after those two projects dry up?  At the moment, the two projects with Marc -- the site-specific improv show and the Night-Vale-esque radio serial -- are the most appealing prospects.  Presumably I can periodically brainstorm those over the next couple of months, so that I have a plan I can put into action once Tales from the Black Vault is out of my hands.

That might also be the time to pull the trigger on returning to stand-up.  I could resume my usual thing of spending half an hour or so per day working on material, and occasionally do five minutes at an open mic.  If I can get back in the habit of churning out jokes, I could take the next course at the Institution.

But if the Marc projects aren't ready to go, or stand-up doesn't seem appealing, or I find myself with extra time in spite of all of those, then I should consider doing a bunch of Fringe formats for a while.

I also have to consider how getting a new job might skew things.

Part-time work has been nigh-impossible to find, so I'm guessing I'll have to settle for a full-time job.  On the plus side, that means lots of money -- so I'll quickly retain a piano instructor and possibly take some kizomba classes.

But this will also mean that most of my time will disappear.  (This is especially true if -- god forbid -- I get a day job in an office.)  So that in turns means I have to make a massive prioritization effort.  Cooking will probably disappear, or I'll shift it around to massive, once-a-month frozen-meal preparation.  Piano and dance may, ironically, be squeezed out, victims of the very same work hours that would make them financially viable.

I would absolutely hold on to guitar, the (somewhat shorter) media updates, one writing project, and one improv project.  But even that would be possibly untenable.  Basically, it'll require all of my considerable time-management skills to have a workable artistic life when I'm full-time employed.

Further Plans
Beyond that immediate term, I can only imagine very vague plans.  I could resume a sketch-of-the-week thing, or maybe start up Sketchwar again -- although that smacks of retracing my steps.  I could write a proper audiodrama serial -- maybe six twenty-minute episodes -- or have another go at devising an audiodrama serial.  If I want to make more forays into directing, I think the Fringe would again be the right foothold for practicing that -- and if the narration workshop takes shape in the next couple of months, I could try teaching that 'for real'.

Hopefully all of that will come into focus as as the spring and summer approach.

But the main thing to remember is, I should always be on the lookout for new projects.  When even a vague idea flits by, I should grab on to it.  And if it looks like it's worth developing, then I should be perfectly happy to throw out all these convoluted plans I've made, and do the thing that's better.

[1] "Market" may be the wrong word here, since I don't see myself making money off of anything artistic without considerable (and time-consuming) hustle. 
[2] Seriously: I had a sound card that made fonts show up wrongWhat.
[3] This is turning into a whole Civ V tech tree, isn't it...
[4] N.B.: what follows is just how it works out for me.  Your mileage may vary.
[5] Ain't a damn thing wrong with either of those; just stating the facts.
[6] And to be clear, the right time to go to Hollywood was in the late 90s, when I was young/when the TV industry was not a bewildering whirlwind of financial ruin.
[7] If I ever want to produce longer video projects in the future, the most sensible thing I can do is to produce short video projects now.

Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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